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A difficult but worthwhile study
on 24 May 2015
Slightly more than half the book recounts Mitterrand's ascent to the Presidency of France in 1981: how in his youth, his friendships were on the far Right; how he was taken prisoner of war by the Germans, but escaped to Vichy; initially supported Pétain and was decorated by him; broke with Vichy in 1943 and became part of the Resistance; supported Giraud against De Gaulle; disliked the socialists and joined a centre-left party; held several Cabinet posts in the Fourth Republic; considered De Gaulle's return to power in 1968 as a military coup and denounced De Gaulle's Constitution as "a permanent coup d'état"; only committed himself to Socialism as late as 1965; managed to create a left-wing coalition (including the Communists); ran unsuccessfully for President against De Gaulle in 1965 and against Giscard d'Estaing in 1974, but finally won the Presidency in 1981. He was now as presidential and authoritarian as any previous President; but twice during his 14-year-long Presidency, his party lost control of the Assembly to the right-wing parties and he was compelled into "cohabitation" with right-wing prime ministers.
The book brings out very well Mitterrand's personality: many people found him cold, reserved, aloof, secretive and enigmatic; but he had circles of close friends to whom he was loyal under all circumstances; but he never forgave socialists who had opposed him, and that would bedevil his relationships with several leaders of his own party. Many women, younger than him, found his charm irresistible, and he had many affaires.
He ran a second family with Anne Pingeot, but he remained "loyal" to his wife Danielle (with whom he had two sons) and accepted that she, too, had a lover, Jean Balenci. When François and Danielle moved into a new house in Paris in 1973, Balenci moved in with them. In 1974 Anne, who lived ten minutes' walk away, gave birth to their daughter Mazarine, named after the 17th century Cardinal Mazarin with whose wily suppleness Mitterrand identified himself. In those days the French press did not reveal the personal lives of politicians, and Mitterrand's liaison was not published until shortly before the end of his second term as President. Nor was the fact that, only six months into his first Presidency, he was diagnosed with a prostate cancer which had already spread into the bone: his life expectancy was just three years. But he lived to complete his second presidency and died in 1996, 15 years after the diagnosis.
The book is not an easy read - it is enormously detailed, and the text is peppered with many names and with a plethora of organizations, political parties and often amorphous groupings - their acronyms take up five pages at the back - which made the politics of the Fourth and even the Fifth Republic so messy, unstable and filled with manoeuvres. A further 62 pages of notes at the back - nearly 10% of the text - are not just source references, but predominantly expand on the main text and should really have joined the other footnotes in the book rather than being end notes. But so many quite long footnotes are quite a distraction.
Throughout the book Short is not afraid to deliver his own verdicts on Mitterrand's mistakes, especially in domestic politics: that he had poor understanding of and little interest in economics; that his hesitations sometimes led to his taking necessary actions too late; that his handling of his socialist colleagues was poor. (In the last few months of his life he lambasted practically every politician with whom he had worked.) Short judges him to have been sounder, shrewder and, on the whole, more successful in his foreign policy. France's relations with the United States, Germany, Britain, the European Community and Russia bulk large in the chapters covering Mitterrand's Presidency.